Tuesday, December 7, 2021

A Gunman Has Escaped (1948)

A Gunman Has Escaped is a British crime B-feature from 1948 and it’s a pretty obvious quota quickie.

A gang robs a jewellery store and a passer-by is shot during the robbery. The man may die.

It was Eddie Steele (John Harvey) who pulled the trigger. Eddie decides it would be a good idea to make himself scarce but he insists that two other members of the gang accompany him - he doesn’t trust them not to grass on him. Sinclair (John Fitzgerald) and Bill (Robert Cartland) aren’t thrilled by the idea that Eddie still has that gun and he’s short-tempered, not too stable and very insistent so they don’t have much choice.

The other members of the gang try to explain to Eddie that taking Sinclair and Bill with him is just going to make things easier for the police by making it much more likely that one of the three will be recognised but there’s no reasoning with Eddie.

The truth is that while he won’t admit it Eddie is pretty rattled. If that passer-by dies he could be heading for an appointment with the hangman. Eddie might be a tough buy but the thought of having a noose put around one’s neck is the sort of thing that would frighten anybody.

Eddie continues to do rash things. The three try to hitch a life but the truck driver gets suspicious so Eddie slugs him. As you would expect, once the truck driver comes around he contacts the police so the cops now know which direction in which their quarry is heading.

The three head for a farm, hoping to get some work and lie low for a while. Te farmer has a pretty daughter (played by Jane Arden) and it’s soon obvious that she and Bill are getting a bit sweet on each other. This doesn’t please Eddie. Eddie doesn’t trust women. He doesn’t even trust his girlfriend Goldie (Maria Charles). In fact he especially doesn’t trust Goldie. But then he doesn’t trust anybody. And he's right to be paranoid.

The news on the radio is not reassuring. The police seem to have some idea of the identities of the men they’re hunting and it appears that someone may have grassed on Eddie after all. It’s probably one of the other three members of the gang, the ones who didn’t come with Eddie. It could be Johnson or Red or Spike, or it could even be Goldie. Eddie is getting a bit paranoid by now.

Sinclair and Bill are getting a bit more worried by Eddie’s behaviour. Sinclair would cheerfully hand him over to the police if he could do so safely but he doesn’t dare do anything.

Of course we know it’s going to end badly for the crooks but we don’t know exactly how badly.

John Harvey is convincingly edgy and unpredictable and violent as Eddie. John Fitzgerald is very good as Sinclair, in some ways the most interesting member of the trio and the one we’d like to learn a bit more about. Sinclair is the odd man out. He’s a crook but he’s an educated and cultured man and he despises the low-class hoodlums that he’s associated with. Bill is just a typical minor criminal with an intense loyalty to Eddie.

John Gilling, who went on to an interesting career as a director, wrote the screenplay.

Producer-director Richard M. Grey is a rather obscure figure who had a very brief career. While he does a reasonably competent job here there’s nothing in A Gunman Has Escaped to suggest he was ever likely to have a distinguished career.

This is a relatively violent movie by 1948 British standards, with a higher body count than you might expect.

A Gunman Has Escaped is one of the nine feature films included in the Renown Pictures Crime Collection Volume 1 boxed set (a good value-for-money set). The transfer is pretty good. The set also includes the slightly odd but interesting Death Goes to School and the quite decent Murder at 3am.

If you don’t set your expectations too high and you keep in mind that this is a very cheap movie then A Gunman Has Escaped provides reasonably good entertainment. Recommended.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) Hitchcock Friday #6

The Man Who Knew Too Much marked the beginning of the extraordinary run of great British thrillers made by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s. A run of films that would establish his international reputation. He would never again be so consistently at such a peak of creativity. It’s also a movie in which you can see the Hitchcock formula falling into place. Pretty much everything you want in a Hitchcock movie is here - an attractive couple in love, the combination of suspense, romance and humour, the spectacular visual set-pieces, ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events.

Hitchcock remade this movie in 1956 but the original 1934 version is the better movie.

It was also his first spy thriller.

Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) and his wife Jill are in Switzerland. Jill is competing in a shooting contest - she’s a champion markswoman. They’re clearly a very happily married couple. They’re accompanied by their fourteen-year-old daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). And then a murder takes place (in a very cleverly shot scene). The dying man gives Jill a message that absolutely must reach the British Consul.

It soon becomes clear that someone is determined to stop the Lawrences from passing on that message. That someone has decided to make sure of stopping them by kidnapping young Betty.

The Foreign Office thinks the murder was connected to a plot to assassinate an eastern European statesman. They want the Lawrences to co-operate but the Lawrences have to decide between their daughter’s life and the statesman’s life and their daughter’s life matters more to them. They won’t help the government. Bob Lawrence does however decide to do some investigating on his own. He finds out quite a bit but there’s still the problem of how to foil the assassin’s plot without risking Betty’s life.

There are just so many classic Hitchcock moments in this movie. The scene in the dentist’s office. Mixing danger with some dark humour. The fight in the Tabernacle of the Sun. Hitchcock really doesn’t put a foot wrong.

One weakness in later Hitchcock is the pacing. His movies became much too long. This movie has a running time of just 75 minutes. The remake took 120 minutes to tell an inferior story. In 1934 Hitchcock’s pacing was blistering. There’s not a single wasted scene in the 1934 version.

There’s humour of course, but just the right amount to provide an occasional letup in the tension before Hitchcock ramps up the suspense once again.

Leslie Banks, a big name at the time, is very good as is Edna Best as his wife. Nova Pilbeam’s performance impressed Hitchcock so much that three years later he cast her as the female lead in the superb Young and Innocent. Hitchcock was right. She gives a terrific performance in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Of course it’s Peter Lorre who owns this movie. He’s in full-on sinister foreigner mode. He’s terrifying but he has funny moments which just serve to make him seem more menacing. His politeness increases his sense of menace as well. He can be polite because he believes that his plans are so carefully laid that they cannot fail.

Lorre is so delightful that we’re tempted to root for him even though he’s the villlain, but there’s no real danger that we’ll actually do that. If the bad guys win then young Betty will die and we really like her. There’s nothing like a Woman in Peril to keep the audience on the side of the good guys.

This movie features the first of Hitchcock’s really famous visual set-pieces, the superb Albert Hall sequence. It’s much more effective than the equivalent scene in his remake.

Unusually for a Hitchcock movie there’s an extraordinarily bloody extended action finale with probably the highest body count in any of his movies. That finale was inspired by the real-life Sidney Street siege in 1911.

Network’s release offers an excellent transfer. I’d previously only seen in this movie in a very dodgy VHS release. The only significant extra is a 1970s documentary on Hitchcock which includes an interview with the man himself.

He went on to make better movies but The Man Who Knew Too Much is the most important movie Hitchcock ever made. It showed him the path to success. It established him as the Master of Suspense. From that point on every time he left that path, every time he abandoned that successful formula, he experienced failure. As soon as he returned to the path he was back on top.

And The Man Who Knew Too Much is in itself pretty entertaining. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

In a Lonely Place (1950)

In a Lonely Place, released by Columbia in 1950, is a much-praised film noir directed by Nicholas Ray.

Now I have to put my cards on the table upfront. I am not a Nicholas Ray fan. I was however very impressed by In a Lonely Place when I first saw it sixteen years ago. How well does it stand up to a repeat viewing? We shall see.

Dixon “Dix” Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a screenwriter. He’s also a self-pitying loser with a short temper and a bad attitude. His career as a screenwriter has been slowly going down the toilet. He thinks he’s far too important a writer to be sullying his hands on hack work, even though hack work is now all he can get. Now he has a chance to get his career back on track. All he has to do is to turn the latest bestseller potboiler into a usable script.

Being a writer with such a high opinion of his own talents he doesn’t want to demean himself by actually reading the novel he has to adapt. So he persuades hat check girl Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), who has just read the book, to go back to his place and tell him the story of the book. It naturally crosses her mind that he has simply lured her back to his apartment in order to make an attempt on her virtue but in fact he really does just want her to explain the plot of the novel to him. His intentions are entirely innocent. The book sounds like the sort of thing that would make a hit movie so naturally Dix hates it. He then sends Mildred home in a cab.

At five o’clock next morning the police come knocking and Dixon Steele finds himself a potential suspect in a murder investigation.

His neighbour Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) provides him with an alibi of sorts but the police still see Steele as their prime suspect. Captain Lochner thinks Dix did it because Dixon has a history of getting into bar fights. The fact that the kinds of guys who get into bar fights are not really the kinds of guys who commit this type of murder doesn’t seem to occur to him.

Dix and Laurel didn’t know each other at all. They were just neighbours who knew each other by sight. Now they find themselves thrown together and they fall in love, and Dix suddenly discovers he can write again. Everything would be going great, except that Dix has a murder rap hanging over his head and he keeps losing his temper.

Dix and Laurel become more and more romantically involved and the question of marriage arises. The police still think Dix is guilty. And Laurel has her doubts. It’s just a very vague suspicion at first but it keeps gnawing at her.

First things first. This is not a film noir. It has no film noir elements at all. Dix is not a classic noir protagonist. He’s just a pig and a jerk at the beginning of the picture and he doesn’t change. There’s no femme fatale. There are no flashbacks. There’s no noir visual style. There are a few night scenes but there’s nothing noirish about them. This is a melodrama. Usually I like melodramas so that’s not necessarily a problem, but a film noir it ain’t. It’s more Hitchcockian than film noir, with some thematic similarities to Suspicion.

The main problem is the character of Dixon Steele. He’s not just a pig and a jerk, he’s a whiny, self-pitying violent pig and a jerk. His friends keep making excuses for him but there’s nothing likeable or admirable about him. He’s selfish and self-centred. I suppose that because he’s a writer we’re supposed to see him as a tortured creative soul but really he doesn’t have enough redeeming qualities to make the viewer care very much what happens to him. Bogart makes Dix intermittently amusing but never sympathetic.

This means the movie has to rely entirely on Laurel - on her motivations, emotions and suspicions. It’s a complex part because Laurel is a woman who really doesn’t know herself what her true feelings are. She loves Dix and she should trust him, but she just can’t trust him no matter how hard she tries. Gloria Grahame’s performance is enough to save the film, but it’s still a film with some serious problems.

The movie is based on a novel of the same name by Dorothy B. Hughes but it had to go through a massive program of censoring and sanitising before Hollywood would touch it - ironically this practice of tearing the guts out of a story to make it safe and innocuous and cosy is just the sort of thing that would have driven Dixon Steele to start breaking heads and putting his fists through walls. So once again there are parallels to Hitchcock’s Suspicion, with Hollywood pusillanimity giving us soda pop instead of the raw Scotch of the original story. The response of the screenwriters of both Suspicion and In a Lonely Place was to abandon the original story entirely and instead offer quite different stories focused on ambiguity and suspicion. In both cases the central character is a woman in love with a man but she can’t love him fully because no matter how much she wants to believe he is innocent she has that nagging suspicion that he might be a killer. And in both cases the audience has the same nagging suspicions.

In Suspicion the central female character was in love with a man who had enough good qualities to make it entirely understandable that she would want to believe in his innocence. In a Lonely Place offers us no clue at all as to why Laurel would waste her time on a jerk like Dix.

And once again we find ourselves back with the problem of Hollywood’s determination to treat its audience like small children. There is one crucial factor missing that would make the film’s plot and the characters’ motivations make sense and that factor is sex. But this was Hollywood in 1950 and movies had to pretend that female sexuality did not exist. Dix’s motivations and Laurel’s motivations could have been made perfectly plausible had the movie been able to confront the question of sex honestly and openly. The only possible explanation for Laurel’s obsessive attraction to Dix is that his rebelliousness and in particular his violence excites her sexually, but of course the movie cannot even hint at such a thing.

The movie is also stymied in any attempt to explain Dix’s personal problems. Is there a sexual element? Or is the key to his personality the war? If you give a man a gun and teach him to be a killer will he revert to normality once the war is over? There is one tantalising scene that suggests that Dix’s problem is that the war taught him to automatically respond to any crisis with violence.

So what we have is definitely not a film noir but a Hitchcockian psychological suspense thriller that almost works but is only a partial success because the keys to the story, the motivations of the two lead characters, are just not quite convincing enough. It does however almost work and the ending does work extremely well. It’s an attempt to make a complex film dealing with complex emotions but Hollywood was still not prepared to treat its audience as grown-ups.

The ending of the film (which was not the original intended ending) provides more parallels to Hitchcock’s Suspicion and in both cases I’m inclined to think that the ending finally chosen was the best compromise possible at the time. The script went through drastic changes before filming began, in fact the earlier versions would have made a totally different film. It’s a worrying indication that nobody involved in the project had any clear idea of what kind of film they wanted to make or how they wanted to make it or what the characters were supposed to be all about. It’s likely that studio timidity and worries about the Production Code were responsible for the script chaos and for the fact that the finished film feels like an uneasy compromise.

A lot of the ambiguity which is admired in this movie may be nothing more than plot incoherence, an inevitable result with a script that was radically recast several times. There are important elements that just go nowhere. Early on it is made clear that much of Dix’s bitterness and violence are consequence of his Creative Struggle. He wants to be a Real Writer but his employers at the studio want him to churn out commercial pap. His latest assignment is to churn out a popular potboiler and this causes him intense Artistic Suffering. Dix’s friends justify his bad behaviour on this basis (as does Dix himself). He does complete the screenplay. But did he compromise his Artistic Principles or did he sell out? It seems vital that we know, but we’re not told. It’s as if this element has simply been forgotten, even though in the early stages it was established as one of the major themes of the film.

The Criterion DVD (they’ve released it on Blu-Ray as well) includes lots of extras. There’s an audio commentary by Dana Polan which is definitely best avoided. He’s obsessed with over-analysing every single frame of the movie, to the extent that he misses the big picture. Occasionally he’ll thrown in a snippet that is genuinely important and worth discussing but he doesn’t discuss it. He just goes back to his trite over-analysis of individual shots. The extras are bizarre

In a Lonely Place strikes me as a potentially great psycho-sexual thriller that was watered down into a reasonably competent suspense thriller. It’s an example of the same commercial compromises that Dix spends the whole movie wailing about. It’s still an interesting movie but I’m much less impressed the second time around and my opinion of Nicholas Ray as a film-maker declines with every Ray film that I see.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Dial M for Murder (1954) - Hitchcock Friday #5

In the 1940s Hitchcock became obsessed by the idea of making a movie on a single set. I have no idea why since it involved the extreme danger that the resulting movie would be excessively stagey and excessively talky. And would be the complete antithesis of the pure cinema that Hitchcock wanted to create. I can only assume that he wanted to emphasise the artificiality of the medium. He made two attempt to put the idea into practice in the 40s with Lifeboat and Rope. Both were complete failures. In 1954 he tried again, with Dial M for Murder.

The result is, as you might expect, excessively stagey and excessively talky.

Hitchcock was also persuaded to make this movie in 3D. It only ever had a limited release in that format.

Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) is a recently retired tennis star who married Margot (Grace Kelly) for her money. The arrangement suited him perfectly. Until one day he discovered that she no longer loved him. More seriously, she had dealt with this situation by taking a lover. Her affair with American Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings) started to look rather serious and Tony realised that if she left him he’d be faced with the worst nightmare he could possibly imagine - he might have to get a job. The obvious solution from Tony’s point of view is to kill Margot. Then he’ll get her money. Problem solved.

All he has to do is to find a fool-proof way of carrying out the murder and he comes up with an ingenious plan. He will blackmail an old college chum named Swan into carrying out the murder for him.

It all goes wrong. Rather than Swan killing Margot it ends with Margot killing Swan but the quick-thinking Tony comes up with a Plan B that is even more clever and ingenious - if Margot is hanged for Swan’s murder he will still inherit her money. She killed Swan in self-defence but he thinks he can make it look like murder.

So it’s a variation on one of Hitchcock’s favourite themes, the wrong man accused of a murder. In this case it’s a woman wrongly accused of murder. And since the woman is played by the glamorous and beautiful Grace Kelly the audience’s emotions are going to be fully engaged. No viewer of the movie wants to see Grace Kelly hanged.

There’s plenty of suspense as time is running out for poor Margot.

The staginess of the movie means that, unusually for a Hitchcock movie, absolutely everything depends on the performance. In fact everything depends on one performance - Ray Milland’s. He more or less has to carry the entire movie single handed. Fortunately he’s equal to the challenge. Milland is sometimes dismissed as a kind of poor man’s Cary Grant but for my money Milland had by far the more interesting career, largely because (unlike Cary Grant) he was prepared to play both sympathetic and unsympathetic characters. He’s in superb form here. He really is quite chilling and at the same time charming and amusing. Milland was much much too old to be convincing as a recently retired tennis star but this is a detail we can overlook.

Grace Kelly doesn’t get all that much to do, apart from looking fabulous. It’s really more of a supporting part than a leading lady part. What she does she does well.

Anthony Dawson (as Swan) is fun as a stereotypical public schoolboy gone bad. John Williams is a delight as Chief Inspector Hubbard and Robert Cummings is dull as Mark Halliday.

But the movie belongs entirely to Ray Milland.

The setup of the movie doesn’t allow Hitchcock to indulge in any of his famous spectacular visual set-pieces. It’s the acting and the script that matter. This is one of the rare cases when we can say that given the script and the actors any competent director could have made this movie quite successfully. Of course they wouldn’t have made it quite as well. It doesn’t quite feel like a Hitchcock movie. If movies like Strangers on a Train and Rear Window and Vertigo were Hitchcock’s symphonies, full-blooded Hitchcock guaranteed to knock the audience’s collective sicks off, Dial M for Murder is like a piece of chamber music. It’s like a string quartet. It’s low-key and unassuming and it’s not a big movie but it’s perfectly constructed and it works.

It’s possibly also fair to say that after I Confess in 1953 Hitchcock wanted a surefire hit that would put him back at the top of the hit parade, especially given that he was intending to make more ambitious movies (and his next picture, Rear Window, was very ambitious indeed). It doesn’t hurt to remind the studios of your ability to make solid commercial movies.

While Lifeboat and Rope failed Dial M for Murder succeeds because it’s not so extreme. It doesn’t use gimmickry to distract the audience. Hitchcock had a great story and he was content to focus on the plot.

And the plot really is very neat. With the kind of sting in the tail that Hitchcock enjoyed so much.

Dial M for Murder is just a very entertaining movie that you can just sit back and enjoy for pure pleasure. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Black Memory (1947)

Black Memory is a very low-budget 1947 British crime movie.

Danny Cruff (Michael Atkinson) has a rough start in life, in a provincial town in the north of England. His father is hanged for murder. Then his mother dies. Danny is shipped off to school. The school is a kind of combination of a reform school and a school for orphans, run on the thoroughly misguided principle that it’s a good idea to mix all the boys together even though some of them are little thugs in the making and some are perfectly decent.

The bane of Danny’s life is bully Johnnie Fletcher (Michael Medwin).

After his schooling is completed Danny returns to his home town and is taken in as a lodger by the kindly Mrs Davidson. Mrs Davidson and her husband Alf (who has an obsession with crime stories) have two grown-up adopted daughters, Joan and Sally.

The bad news for Danny is that Johnnie Fletcher is back in town as well.

Johnnie Fletcher is now an up-and-coming hoodlum. And Sally has been running with him. Sally is whiny and self-pitying and imagines that Johnnie will soon have lots of money and that he’ll take her away from her boring life and they’ll have an exciting life together. Sally is not the brightest of girls.

Joan is the good sister and she takes quite a shine to Danny.

Danny soon has lots of problems. A year earlier there’d been a robbery in a neighbouring town and Danny, although completely innocent, came under suspicion. Johnnie knows all about this and it gives him something to hold over Danny’s head. Johnnie has a factory robbery planned and he intends to force Danny to help him. Sally is going to be involved as well. Another man involved in this upcoming robbery is Rutford, and Rutford is linked to Danny’s past.

Because the past is what this movie is all about. Danny is trapped by his past. He’s trapped by a promise he made to his mother before she died and he’s haunted by the fear that he’ll end up like his old man, on the end of the hangman’s rope. And it looks like Johnnie is going to make sure that Danny’s past destroys him. But nobody can escape the past.

Danny isn’t completely stupid but getting out of this mess is going to be quite a challenge. Maybe he can find a way to escape the trap of his past, or maybe he can’t.

Michael Atkinson and Michael Medwin are both effective in their roles. Medwin is suitably menacing as Johnnie.

The most interesting thing about this movie is that it was scripted by John Gilling who went on to have a pretty good career as a writer and director (including directing some excellent horror films for Hammer in the 60s, films such as The Plague of the Zombies and the very underrated The Reptile). He also directed the extremely good film noir The Challenge in 1960 (which features a remarkably good performance by Jayne Mansfield as a lady gangster). He also directed the excellent spy noir Deadly Nightshade. Gilling also acted as assistant director on Black Memory.

Production values are very very low. This was obviously a quota quickie made on a shoestring budget and it shows.

This very obscure movie is readily available on DVD, being one of the films in the Renown Pictures Crime Collection Volume 1 boxed set. The transfer is acceptable but not great. Picture quality is mostly OK but there is intermittent print damage and the sound is a bit fuzzy. It’s quite watchable though.

Black Memory does have some slight claims to being a film noir (in fact it has better claims than a lot of other movies marketed as noir). It’s just a bit too cheap and a bit creaky in parts but it has some interest. If you’re going to buy the boxed set anyway it’s worth giving it a spin.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Young and Innocent (1937) - Hitchcock Friday #4

Young and Innocent was one of the series of great suspense films that Alfred Hitchcock made in Britain in the mid to late 1930s in which he established himself as one of the major creative talents in the world of motion pictures. The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes are recognised as masterpieces but Young and Innocent is still often, very unfairly, dismissed as Hitchcock Lite. In fact it’s one of the key movies of his career. All the classic Hitchcockian features are there and he’s in complete control of his craft.

A young man named Robert Tisdall (Derrick de Marney) finds a dead woman washed up on a beach. He runs off. Moments later two young women see the body, and they see Robert running off. The police arrive and decide that Robert is the obvious suspect. They don’t believe his story that he thought the woman might still be alive and was running to get help.

We can see how a not very competent policeman inclined to jump to conclusions would see Robert as the prime suspect. We have strong reason to believe that Robert is innocent. We also have strong reason to believe we’ve seen the actual murderer. And we’ve seen the first clue.

The dead woman is movie star Christine Clay. And Robert knew her. That will count against him.

This is an early example of Hitchcock’s dislike of the police. In this instance the police are not malevolent. They are merely stupid, incompetent and lazy. With an obvious suspect in custody they are not interested in investigating the case properly.

The whole criminal justice system is farcically incompetent. Robert escapes from custody with contemptuous ease. Now he sets off to find a vital piece of evidence. On the road he encounters Erica Burgoyne (Nova Pilbeam) in her little motor car. She’s the Chief Constable’s daughter and he had already made her acquaintance while being questioned by the police. Now Erica has to decide whether to turn him in or help him. For various reasons she decides not to turn him in. Erica considers herself to be very good at identifying criminal types and she doesn’t think he looks like a murderer. She’s also kindhearted, the sort of girl likely to have more sympathy for the fox than for the hounds. Robert is also a good-looking charming young man which might have influenced her decision.

You also need to bear in mind the word young in the title. This is not just an attractive likeable couple on the run, they’re also young and rather naïve. Which of course makes us more sympathetic to them. Nova Pilbeam was just eighteen when this movie was made and we assume that her character is about that age. Her behaviour in the movie becomes completely plausible when we realise she’s a teenaged girl. Her whimsical romantic decision to help Robert becomes believable. She’s really not much more than a kid. We assume she’s probably never had a serious love affair before. When she finds that she’s rather attracted to Robert we can believe that she’s been carried away by a romantic fantasy. It’s the sort of adventure the heroine of a romance novel might have. Falling in love with an innocent man on the run!

While Robert is a little older he’s only slightly more mature, or perhaps even just as immature. But we forgive them both.

It might sound like I’m dismissing Erica as a silly child but what makes her so engaging as a character is that she’s simultaneously intelligent and experienced, resourceful and naïve, sensible and impulsive.

I like the relationship between Robert and Erica. It’s playful and affectionate and rather tender but without being sentimental or insipid.

I like Nova Pilbeam a lot in this movie. She’s definitely not a Hitchcock Ice Blonde. She’s too warmhearted for that but she’s lively and amusing.

Maybe de Marney and Pilbeam don’t have the star quality of Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps but they both have charm and they have extraordinary chemistry. You feel that Robert and Erica are just destined to fall in love. And this is a different type of couple on the run movie, it’s a more lighthearted movie with the emphasis more on the romance.

It could be objected that a weakness in the film is that there’s no initial antagonism between the two lead characters. It’s pretty much love at first sight. But that’s the sort of film this is. They’re like two children united against the adult world represented by Erica’s father. It’s not that her father is a bad man. He seems to be a loving and indulgent father but he represents the system of police and courts and laws that can destroy the lives of innocent people. He’s an authority figure and to Hitchcock authority figures are inherently suspect. Both Robert and Erica are somewhat child-like. They both have a childish faith that they will win out in the end because they’re young and in love.

Erica never wavers in her belief in Robert’s innocence. Again it could be objected that it would add dramatic tension if she had a few doubts but much of the enjoyment in this movie comes from the fact that it’s Erica and Robert vs the grown-up world.

The bond between Erica and Robert makes perfect sense. It’s established early on that she’s a sensitive girl who is horrified by violence. Her ideal man is clearly going to be Robert, who is unfailingly gentle towards her. And Robert wants a woman on whom he can shower affection, and he doesn’t mind at all that sometimes she mothers him.

Hitchcock was already ware that he had to appeal to female audiences and this is to a considerable extent a women’s picture. It’s a female coming-of-age movie. At the start Erica is just a girl. She’s had a safe and comfortable but very narrow and very sheltered upbringing. She unquestioningly accepts her father’s view of the world - that the innocent have nothing to fear from the police, that she should accept her father’s authority, that she should obey all the social rules. She believes her father is always right. By the end of the movie she is a woman. She now knows that life is much more complicated, that the innocent do have reason to fear the police, that social rules don’t have to accepted without question, that life is full of shades of grey, that her father can be wrong, that she has to choose the man she wants. And she chooses a man very different from her father. She has, in a couple of days, grown up.

The alternative title, The Girl Was Young, makes it quite clear that the film is all about Erica. She is indeed young but she’s about to enter the adult world.

Young and Innocent was based on Josephine Tey’s novel A Shilling for Candles. Tey was a second-tier mystery novelist who is now quite highly thought of although personally I can’t imagine why. In any case, as with most Hitchcock adaptations, the movie differs markedly from the novel. Charles Bennett and Edwin Greenwood wrote the screenplay.

Network’s DVD offers a reasonable transfer and includes a short documentary on Hitchcock’s British films.

This is also both a “wrong man accused of a crime” story and “couple on the run” movie but, as I said earlier, it’s very much a coming-of-age movie.

The famous visual set-piece in this movie is the wonderful crane shot at the end but the slightly earlier set-piece in the old mine is in its own way just as dazzling and it’s refreshingly original. Hitchcock was already very confident of his ability to pull off these moments of visual brilliance. This is a movie made by a man who had already achieved an extraordinary mastery of the art of film-making. Everything works the way it should and everything works the way Hitchcock knew it would work.

Young and Innocent is a wonderful romantic adventure thriller. This is a genuine feelgood Hitchcock movie. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Time Lock (1957)

I have absolutely no idea how Time Lock came to be included in a film noir boxed set (it’s in Kino Lorber’s British Noir II set). This 1957 British thriller has no conceivable connection with film noir. It’s not even a crime thriller. The film noir label gets attached to all sorts of movies that have nothing to do with film noir but this may be the most spectacular case of mislabelling that I’ve ever come across.

That’s not to say that Time Lock is a bad movie. It’s just not a crime movie. It’s a “rescuers racing against time” thriller.

It’s Friday afternoon and the manager and chief accountant of the South York branch of the Crown Canada Bank in Toronto are closing up the vault. The accountant, Colin Walker (Lee Patterson) has just set the vault’s time lock. Just as they’re about to swing the door closed there is a car accident. While everybody is distracted Walker’s six-year-old son Stephen sneaks into the vault unnoticed. The door is swung shut before anybody realises the boy is inside.

The time lock means that the vault cannot be opened until 9 o’clock Monday morning - that means the boy will be locked in the vault for sixty-three hours. But there’s nowhere near enough air in the vault to last sixty-three hours. The air might last ten hours. It might last a little longer than that, there’s no way of being sure.

And there’s no way to open the time lock. As Colin Walker explains, that’s the reason banks use time locks. They’re fool-proof.

The time lock cannot be opened but if the boy is to be saved they’re going to have to open it.

The main hope lies in contacting Pete Dawson. He’s the bank’s vault expert. If anyone can find a way to defeat the time lock it’s Pete Dawson. That’s if they can find a way to contact him on the weekend, which means they’d have to know where he is and that’s exactly what they don’t know.

The police have been called but they have no way to open the time lock either.

Until Pete Dawson can be found the only thing to do is to try to cut through the vault door with acetylene torches. The problem is that the vault was specifically designed to make it impossible to cut through the door. The door isn’t just steel, it’s steel backed by layers of other metals which apparently makes it all but impossible to burn though.

The other option is to go through the walls of the vault but the walls are composed of fourteen inches of reinforced concrete interspersed with four layers of steel bars. Again, the walls were designed to be impossible to break through. The vault is in fact impregnable.

There doesn’t seem to be any weakness in the design of the vault but if there is a weakness Pete Dawson will find it. But Pete Dawson has not yet been found.

This movie puts the parents of the boy, and the audience, through the emotional wringer. The people working feverishly to rescue young Stephen Walker have no idea if he is still alive, and the audience doesn’t know either.

The drama has become a huge news story, with a huge crows gathered outside the bank and with countless people following the drama on the radio. That proves to be an advantage - the radio station is able to broadcast messages which makes it possible to assemble the equipment needed for the rescue bid, and volunteers are recruited from the crowd to work on breaking through the vault.

The acting reaches no great heights. Lee Patterson was a fine actor who could play villains or heroes or simply men caught up in nightmarish situations but he simply isn’t given anything to work with here. The characters are undeveloped. Which may perhaps have been intentional - it’s the race against time that matters here and too much focus on the characters would have been a distraction. Look out for Sean Connery in a small part.

The setup for this movie is vaguely reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole but the tone couldn’t be more different. Ace in the Hole is a deeply cynical misanthropic movie. The characters in Time Lock by contrast are all decent people doing their best. Even the radio reporter is genuinely anxious to help. The mood might be grim and tense as time runs out for the boy but Time Lock has a certain optimism about human nature. Whether the boy will be saved or not we don’t know but in this crisis people work together to at least try to save him.

Director Gerald Thomas was best known for the Carry On movies but he was actually quite versatile. In the same year he directed Time Lock he directed the extremely good crime thriller The Vicious Circle (also included in this Kino Lorber set). In Time Lock he certain shows that he knew how to build tension. His brother Peter Thomas wrote the script, based on a play by Arthur Hailey (better known for his novels Airport and Hotel).

Kino Lorber’s transfer is excellent. The movie was shot in black-and-white in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

Time Lock is a very effective emotional suspense thriller with no crimes and no villains. It’s a low budget movie with only a couple of sets. It works because it’s so basic - the central idea is excellent and the movie is tightly focused on that one central idea. There’s no characterisation and no bravura acting performances to distract from what is a very simple but very effective plot. This is movie-making stripped down to the bare essentials. And it just works. All it has going for it is a good story, and that’s enough.  Highly recommended.